A friend of mine sends a short video as a New Year's greeting, celebrating the beginning of the year 5767 on the Jewish calendar. It depicts a driver, frustrated because the remote control for his garage door won't work. He bangs on the remote with his hand, his head, his nose and his chin. Nothing happens. A Hasidic Jew drives up, with his black hat and long black locks curled in front of his ears, rolls down the window of his car and aims a shofar, the long ram's horn played at the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He blows the horn with a piercing shriek. The garage door opens.
The greeting: "These High Holy Days, stick with what works. Shofar, so good."
Such humor is stock in trade for the Jews, who have always mixed the sacred with the sacrilegious. If not necessarily a saving grace, humor acts as a palliative to tragedy. Jews have certainly needed it through the centuries. "Oppressed people tend to be witty," wrote Saul Bellow, and Jews know a lot about oppression, too. Humor soothes pain with laughter, though the laughter that brings tears to the eyes may reflect anguish and despair, too.
The shofar is not generally an instrument for humor, but it calls attention to the spiritual nature with appeals to joy, hope and trust, as well as awe, fear and trembling. A new generation of comic writers tries to add humor with edginess to the sounds of the shofar, aiming to revive religious traditions and express concern over Israel.
My greeting card was made by a group called Jewish Impact Films Fellowship, established in Los Angeles to bring freshness to faith. Back in the days of vaudeville, Jewish comics knew how to exploit suffering for humor, building on Shalom Aleichem's dialogue, "G-d, I know we are Your chosen people, but couldn't You choose somebody else for a change?"
Political correctness, which is out to dull everything, finds ethnicity in humor an embarrassment. Molly Goldberg, like Amos and Andy, had to go. (Lum 'n' Abner, which mocks only rural Southerners, can still be heard on occasional small-town radio.) Self-mocking with Yiddish accents or idiosyncratic ungrammatical English was sacrificed first on the altar of assimilation, then later with an appeal to an arrogant multiculturalism. The folk wisdom inherent in the depiction of Jews to deflate the pomposity of the more powerful lost its bite.
Now the bite is back, albeit in different forms. You can start with comic books to find out how. Rabbi Simcha Weinstein has written "Up, Up and Oy Vey," a book about comic heroes inspired by religious themes created by Jewish authors. "Only a Jew would think of a name like Clark Kent," he tells the New York Post. "He's the bumbling, nebbish, Jewish stereotype. He's Woody Allen. Can't get the girl. Can't get the job at the same time, he has this tremendous heritage he can't suppress."
Rabbi Simcha writes that the dual identity of characters like Superman and Spiderman reflects the longings of children of immigrants who desire to live two lives, "privately as a Jew and publicly as an American." The Hebrew Bible provides creative inspiration in supermen like Samson, who brings down the temple of the Philistines, and David, who destroys Goliath with a slingshot.
After the horror of the Holocaust, comedy became a rationed commodity for many Jews. They agreed with Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher, who wrote that "After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry." The philosopher's point was that only silence could express the magnitude of such human tragedy. Hitler was no laughing matter. But then Mel Brooks, who wrote "The Producers," with its chorus line of big-booted Nazi women crooning "Springtime for Hitler," punctured that taboo, too.
Controversy exploded when the Jewish Museum in New York held an exhibition called "Mirroring Evil," which turned themes of the Holocaust into pop art, including a concentration camp made of LEGO. Other critics identified the show as expressing the irrepressible ability of the Jews to rise from the ashes of Hitler's evil.
Two weeks ago, more than 60 years after the Nazis shut down Germany's only rabbinical school, three rabbis were ordained in Dresden's new synagogue. "After the Holocaust, many people could never have imagined that Jewish life in Germany could blossom again," said German president Horst Koehler. "That is why the first ordination of rabbis in Germany is a very special event indeed."
That's something to blow the shofar about on these High Holy days. Happy New Year to you, too.